Obama's response muddled on airport security complaints

The White House on Monday was struggling to explain contradictory statements about the airport security procedures that are generating increasing commotion as the nation heads into the heavily traveled Thanksgiving holiday.

Getting caught in a message whipsaw is nothing new for the Obama administration.

The confused response to the public uproar over the use of digital body scanners and invasive hand searches at airports echoed previous controversies involving the firing of Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod, the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., plans for an Islamic center near ground zero, the Gulf Oil spill and more.

“Has all of this been done perfectly?” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “No.”

President Obama said over the weekend that he understood public frustration and would press the Transportation Security Administration to re-evaluate the pat-downs and body scans that are generating significant outcry from travelers.

On Sunday, TSA Administrator John Pistole told CNN there would be “no change” in procedures. A day later, on ABC's “Good Morning America,” Pistole reversed course and said he was “open to” revising the security procedures.

“What I am doing is going back and looking at are there less invasive ways of doing the same type of screen,” Pistole said.

Pistole repeated the promise on NBC's “Today Show.” But then on CNN, Pistole seemed to change his mind again, saying, “In the short term there will not be any changes.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in, saying she wouldn't want to go through the screening if she could avoid it.

Adding to the confusion, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters that security procedures may see some “changes,” and also that they were not likely to change.

“Of course we will make adjustments or changes when called upon,” Napolitano said, adding that no changes would be made that compromise security.

Gibbs, hoping to clarify the discussion, said “these are procedures that will continually evolve.”

The White House seemed surprised by the travel backlash but continued to defend security procedures, increasingly reminding those heading to airports of recent attempted bombings aboard aircraft.

Still, the lack of message discipline is a recurring problem for the administration. In the Sherrod case, a longtime employee was abruptly fired without investigation after a conservative Web site posted a heavily edited speech that made her sound racist.

The subsequent backtracking led to Sherrod being offered a better, new job — which she declined.

Similarly, Obama was forced to walk back comments he made criticizing police in Cambridge, Mass., for arresting Gates because they thought he was breaking into what turned out to be his own home.

That incident culminated in a bizarre “beer summit” in the Rose Garden with Obama, Vice President Biden, Gates and the arresting officer.

The administration also came under fire for the slow response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year, and for Obama's statements on the planned construction of an Islamic Center near ground zero in Lower Manhattan.

After initially saying organizers had a right to build the facility, Obama later clarified by saying he had no comment on the “wisdom” of building a mosque in that location.

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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